Matt Phelan’s The Storm in the Barn is set in the Dust Bowl of the late 1920s and 1930s. It does a fine job of evoking that environmental catastrophe. I wasn’t so impressed with how the book’s plot was resolved, with a jump into the supernatural. The young hero appears to end the drought and fix his personal troubles in a way that the laws of nature made impossible for real children of that time and place.
Would reviewers be as quick to praise an equally fantastic treatment of other historic tragedies? In particular, I wonder about depictions of the Nazi Holocaust. Would critics, librarians, and teachers be as comfortable with a novel about that history that offers such an unreal resolution?
In The Devil’s Arithmetic, Jane Yolen used the fantastic element of time travel to introduce a modern girl (and, through her, modern readers) to the horrors of the Nazi death camps. At the end, the heroine escapes being killed by traveling forward through time to her home. And that produced some objections.
In an editorial for the Bulletin of the Center of Children’s Books in 1988, Roger Sutton praised aspects of The Devil’s Arithmetic but, as he’s acknowledged, “took issue with the fantasy aspect of the plot.” Specifically, he felt that ending undercut the historical reality:
Time-travel fantasy can be an honorable form of historical fiction, but how effective is it as an introduction to the Holocaust? . . .I saw something similar in The Storm in the Barn. It offers hope for young Jack, and a sense of accomplishment he badly needs. But that comes about entirely at the fantasy level: Jack defeats the personification of the rain (who’s a rather easily defeated personification, as these things go) in a physical tussle atop a windmill.
Jane Yolen has written a powerful, not easily forgotten, story, but is it a story about the Holocaust? The horror—and the history—are betrayed by the essentially comforting vision of the story and its time-travel form. . . .
This optimistic, neatly rounded lesson fits comfortably into children’s literature, a genre that, despite well-known exceptions, demands a hopeful conclusion. How much hope can be extracted from the Holocaust?
More recently, many people objected to John Boyne’s fabulistic treatment of the Holocaust, The Boy in Striped Pajamas, because it, too, offered historically impossible hope. (Others loved the book for the same reason.) As of tonight the novel’s entry on Wikipedia argues:
it is not historical fiction. The very premise of the book - that there would be a child of Shmuel’s age - is, according to critics, an unacceptable fabrication that does not reflect the reality of life in the camps.The Storm in the Barn is also a fabrication, even more obviously since one doesn’t need to look up histories to see the unreal elements. But no one has called Phelan’s book “unacceptable.” Indeed, it just received the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction.
The Dust Bowl and the Nazi Holocaust are separated by a decade at most, so I don’t think our different attitudes toward those events are based on how fresh their memories are. Instead, I can think of several other reasons for the difference, including:
- The lack of human villains in the Dust Bowl, meaning that the personification of the storm doesn’t absolve anyone of responsibility.
- The lack of any small or vocal groups denying the severity of the Dust Bowl.
- America’s powerful agricultural and economic recovery after the Dust Bowl.